Welcome to the third email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover chapter three: Art, Religion, and the Market Place.
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Clark argues that by distrusting each other art and religion have weakened their ability to combat the encroachment and dominance of the market place in our lives. He calls for art and religion to be rescued from the market place and not only set aside the distrust they’ve held for each other (in the post-romantic, modernist, and post-modernist eras) but also re-merge together. He also clarifies that his is not a call for didacticism. Rather it’s that it’s only by reinvigorating each other that art and religion can help our souls experience the complexity, depth, and “airy heights” (31) that the marketplace can never approach—that the marketplace actively keeps us from so we keep turning it to feel our emptiness.
Best Lines: “Art and religion share a common end and a common enemy. The common end is the enrichment of the life of the spirit; the common enemy is the market place.” (17)
Why: These are the first two lines of the essay. They succinctly encapsulate the whole of the essay and do so boldly and simply.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: Although it could use a lot more of this kind of thing, one of the minor triumphs of Mormon literature of my lifetime is that a succession of individuals have stepped up and provided resources (money, time, expertise) to bring forth works of literary, visual, and performing art that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. One of these is Prayers in Bath by Luisa Perkins, which was published by the Mormon Artists Group, a pre-cursor of sorts to the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts. It’s a very short novel that does some things no other piece of Mormon literature does.
Other Recommendation: Clark takes a swipe at “certain kinds of existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism” (17) in this essay. I don’t want to get sidetracked in that argument (and at least he gives himself the out of certain kinds), although maybe I’ll have occasion to talk about why post-modernism need not be scary to Mormonism in a future email. Instead, I’m going to recommend What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici. It doesn’t directly address existentialism and post-structuralism, but I think it makes for interesting reading in relation to this essay (and Clark’s project as a whole).
William Update: My short story “The Ward Organist” won first place in the 2021 Dialogue fiction contest, which had the theme of Body/Bodies of Christ. It will appear in the Winter 2022 edition of the journal.
Here’s part of the opening section of the story:
Never learn to play the organ, the old woman told me. I should call her Sister something, but I don’t remember her last name. Never learn to play, she told me. Once you do you’re stuck.
I don’t remember what I replied. Probably said something like, it doesn’t sound so bad. Said there were worse things to be.
I was in my mid-twenties. I was unmarried and working as a database manager for a small nonprofit so I guess they thought I had the time to learn.
They weren’t wrong.
Never learn to play the organ, the old woman told me. Not unless you can commit to it. Sure, you may find yourself in a ward with another organist to split time with, she said. You might get a different calling from time to time. But make no mistake, once you go down the path of becoming a ward organist, that’s what you’ll be until you die.
And then a line from a bit later in the story:
The angels cluster around my ceiling at night. They circle, a damp glow in the room, golden as plates.
Correction to the Correction: I don’t know how to count. Last week’s correction was wrong. My forthcoming collection of strange Mormon stories will indeed include 18 short stories.
Clark makes several related propositions in this essay. And they’re ones that either you agree with or don’t. He doesn’t bother trying to defend each one because he wants to get to his main point. So let’s go through those quickly, hit a few things I found interesting, and then get to his primary point.
TANGENT 1: INDICTMENT OF MORMONS
One pages 22 and 23, Clark talks about the kinds of popular religion and self-help he finds distasteful. He specifically points at the Mormon “popularizers who see religion nearly always in marketplace terms.” This tendency has actually provided fodder for Mormon literary art (see the chapter “Numbers” in Bela Petco’s Nothing very important and other stories and several of Eric Samuelsen’s plays), but what’s interesting to me about this section is that Clark doesn’t only condemn the purveyors. He addresses the demand side as well and charges Mormons with vanity. He claims that a lot of popular Mormon market books are popular because they feed “our desires to read good things about ourselves.”
As we find in these essays, Clark does not rail against Mormon exceptionalism. He always hoping for it. But he isn’t comfortable with the easy form of it, that claims we’re happier, healthier, wealthier, more accomplished, etc. The kind that valorizes worldly (non-religious, non-artistic) success.
I had never made this connection before, but I think I better understand why it felt like it did to be a member of the Church in the 1980s. After the turmoil of the late 1960s and ’70s, the Church was really on the up swing and a bit more in step with the ethos of the U.S. as a whole. And for those of who found the focus on wealth and success and self-improvement and individualism and consumptions distasteful, it was distressing to see Mormons embrace the times as strongly as many of us did.
TANGENT 2: SIDENOTE ON MODERNISM
On page 28 (and into 29), Clark talks about some of the answers and questions artists, especially great artists, give us. I don’t know his feelings on the theory turn in literary studies in the 1980s. But, generally, Mormon intellectuals (including Eugene England) and religious leaders have condemned what is been termed postmodernism and have warned against relativism (most of such warnings, of course, show little understanding of what the various theories/theorists that get lumped into postmodernism actually say) and have been at best wary of and at worst hostile towards modernist art.
Clark writes: “But in the twentieth century he [the artist] may give us only the disintegration, the distortion, that he senses in that universe.”
That “only” is doing some work. And he goes on in the next paragraph to note: “But our very awareness of that disintegration or distortion must precede the search back toward order, if we have lost it” (28).
We’ll have to see if modernism and postmodernism comes up in future essays (I don’t remember). I like that he acknowledges that it has its uses. I wish he’d written more in depth on it.
THE ART & RELIGION RE-MERGER
In proposing a re-merger, Clark is not proposing didacticism, or substituting culture for religion, or art finding refuge in religion, or a merging merging of the two. Instead he wants a “pooling of resources” (30).
Is such a thing even viable? Clark’s personal experience with both suggests to him that it is. But as I’ve noted in previous emails, his conviction rests on a specific set of experiences with and status within the LDS Church and a certain set (call it canonical) of art.
Moreover, he doesn’t discuss how this is to happen in anything beyond abstract terms. There’s no talk of the material conditions required to create, publish, and find an audience for art (for as much as I love his work, Eugene England generally has this same blindspot). There’s no proposal for how to help cultivate artists capable of creating such a merger. No alternative suggested for what artists should do once they turn their back on the market place.
I absolutely agree with Clark that art and religion can both feed the spirit and enrich and illuminate each other in order to create experiences, moments that leave the market place behind (or at least banish for a short while).
I suppose he’d say that it starts with individual artists trusting religion more, and religious people trusting art more. Trust just doesn’t happen, though. There are good reasons why Mormon artists don’t trust the Mormon audience and vice versa. There are, of course, many more bad reasons why that distrust exists.
And, if anything, the market place has grown worse in the intervening years: both the Mormon market and the larger cultural one. Yes, there are glimmers of hope with small group efforts and indie publishing. But Dante, Handel, Milton, Shakespeare, Kafka—any of the artists Clark mentions in this essay—arrived where Clark could appreciate them due to massive efforts of preservation, publication, and distribution.
Both religion and art require work. Maybe if we want them to trust each other again, to re-merge in a way that’s fruitful rather inert or metastasized, we need to start there. What work can be done to bring about art and religion that isn’t quite so strongly marred by the market place?
Thanks for reading!
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